In the new Chopped tournament, 12 former Chopped champions are getting the chance to go up against Bobby Flay in battle. In every round, four chefs compete to earn a spot in the finale, at the end of which one single champion will get the opportunity of a lifetime, to cook head-to-head against a Food Network great. With $40,000 on the line, the stakes are high, the pressure is on and the cooks are ready to show what they’ve got. In Part 1, chefs Jay Abrams, Mackenzie Hilton, Bradley Stellings and Demetrio Zavala cooked for their lives, but only one earned the win and the first spot in the tournament’s finale.
Appetizer: lutefisk, mache, skordalia, crunchy berry cereal (Bobby’s choice)
Entree: beets, rose water syrup, chocolate-covered onion, lamb short ribs (Bobby’s choice)
Dessert: wine flour, Mayhaw jelly, grilled cheese sandwiches, Marcona almonds (Bobby’s choice)
First round: Mackenzie Hilton
Second round: Bradley Stellings
Final round: Jay Abrams
Winner: Demetrio Zavala
Judges: Marc Murphy, Chris Santos, Bobby Flay
Demetrio came into the competition a determined man. He was talking up a storm every chance he got, goading Bobby into battle. But Demetrio backed up his talk with excellent cooking. For his appetizer, he created a lutefisk crudo that really impressed Bobby, who commented on Demetrio’s skill and technique. In the entree round, Demetrio did what was probably the smartest thing by grabbing the meat grinder to use on the lamb short ribs, which everyone else found problematic for their fattiness. Combining the ground lamb with chorizo, he served a meatloaf. Unfortunately, Bobby found the spices Demetrio used overpowering. But in the dessert round Demetrio triumphed with a savory grilled cheese toast with a salt-and-pepper ice cream that Bobby called a touchdown. Even though Marc and Chris didn’t agree with Bobby’s reasoning, they all agreed on the most-important decision: that Demetrio served the best three courses. Demetrio leaves a Chopped Champion who has earned the chance to battle again, with the possibility of beating Bobby, a Food Network titan.
How does it feel to be back on Chopped?
Demetrio Zavala: It feels amazing. I’m just thankful to be able to come back on here.
Does it feel any different being here in this Beat Bobby Flay tournament? How high are the stakes for you?
DZ: The stakes are much higher, and since everyone’s a champion coming on this show — it seemed like everybody was — we’re better cooks. They were much more technique-driven. Everyone was very refined, compared to my last competition.
Having competed before on Chopped and having this other competition under your belt, do you feel it’s going to be an advantage for you to beat Bobby, since he’s not that familiar with this environment?
DZ: Yeah, I think so. Especially being here twice … . I’m getting familiarity with all the ingredients, where they’re placed, what the kitchen’s like. The more that you do something, the more that you’ll feel like you’re at home.
How hard were the baskets for you today? Were there any ingredients that threw you off, and what was hard about it for you?
DZ: I would say with the dessert basket — [I] never worked with a red wine flour, so that’s a first for me — and the first course. I’ve never worked with that fish before. I was kind of, like … I was very curious. I had to eat it myself to see what exactly that fish was and what the texture is. … So, definitely different ingredients. They are stepping up their game when it comes to ingredients, and they’re giving you an array of ingredients. Plus, even on the meat course they gave you short ribs, knowing that it takes four hours to cook a short rib, so you had to basically create something else and manipulate something else out of what you have. So, they’re definitely stepping their game up when it comes to using basket ingredients.
Some of the comments you got on your entree were a little bit tough on the meatloaf. Do you regret going that route?
DZ: Yeah, I do regret going on the meatloaf route for my entree round, just because I was going to do, like, six other dishes and my mind was too flustered at the time just thinking of so many dishes — like, would it be ready, would it not be ready. And I was telling them I was going to do a Scotch egg and use the ground meat on the outside and make a sausage and do this and do that, and it just kept on … Nothing’s perfect, but, you know, you try, and I have to own the dish — whatever I put on the plate, I have to own it. It could have been much better.
Was that the same mentality that you had with your dessert dish, because I think you had a lot of thought going on and all those different components?
DZ: I wanted to show something different … . I could have just given them a bread pudding made with the bread … and done a red wine ice cream and called it a day and used the almonds in a streusel … but I wasn’t going to do that. I said, “I have to push the envelope, because my other two courses, one was not that good. So I’m going to make sure if I’m going to come, I’ve got to come really hard on this last one,” so I went above and beyond, pretty much.
What made you decide to go savory in the dessert round?
DZ: I wanted to go savory just because I saw the ingredients I had: … first of all, the jam was already sweet, and then also you gave me a grilled cheese. I mean, grilled cheese is savory, and when you think of dessert, cheese is very salty … and the only thing that really goes with that is, like, fruit and cheese. It’s like fruit, cheese and bread; that’s really like a cheese plate, more or less. So, I wanted to make that, how it can be a little bit sweet and complex and still patch in with it. I mean, I could just have fried that whole thing and done like a Monte Cristo dessert and stuffed it with berries and the cheese and everything and give them a half a slice of it. I could have done an ice cream sandwich with it. There’s numerous things you can play on it, but I wanted people to also … when I do food I want to educate them [that] there’s other ways to prepare dessert instead of just being sweet, that you can give savory and people will feel like … like those two judges said, they felt like they weren’t eating a dessert. That was the idea — … to feel like you’re not eating a dessert, because at the end of the day we all have regret. You’re eating a bunch of sugar, you’re like, “Uh, I have to go to the gym tomorrow, I have to do this,” but [if you] instead eat something that’s more on the savory side, you don’t feel that way.
Bobby was the only one that really got that concept. Did you feel a little hurt when the other two judges were not that into it?
DZ: The other two judges were not gonna like it. … Bobby got it because he sees I’m trying to push the envelope a little bit, and even though … I mean, I’m 41, but I’m still trying, I’m still reaching, and that’s what a chef is. A chef has to reach and take people to … like, think about all the chefs in this world. Some chefs separate themselves by being different and unique. You have to be unique and have your own niche. If I did a bread pudding like everybody else would do, they would say, “OK, it’s just a bread pudding.” But I did something that nobody else would have probably done, and that’s the creative element of being a chef.
Do you think there’s a weak side to that, where you can get over-creative?
DZ: You can become over-creative, but there’s a fine line when you come to savory and to sweet; you have to have a balance. And that’s why I put the isomalt on the bread — to make sure it was a sticky toffee bread and everything like that, and [that] the dessert was still sweet.
What have been your biggest struggles today? Some things that you don’t want to repeat going into the finale?
DZ: I think that something I have to do is I have to sit back a second, a little more, and gain my thoughts. I noticed that when I did my lamb dish I kept running back and forth for every little thing I was thinking [I needed]. Usually what I like to do is I like to just grab all my ingredients, come back and work. I was thinking of too many [things].
You mentioned that you’d like to cook against Bobby because you have a Mexican background and he cooks that way. How do you plan to beat him? Do you hope that you’ll go side to side with Mexican dishes?
DZ: I’m not going to do Mexican; I’m gonna take the Cuban side. I’m gonna rock his world … he’ll be like, “Damn, where is this? I don’t know how to make this.” So, I might rock his world.
What dish were you most proud of?
DZ: My dessert. I was proud of my dessert dish, because at the last competition I failed tremendously on the dessert. I feel like I redeemed myself and knowing that it’s OK to do things and how I can still play my savory and my sweet. I felt good about my dessert.
If you do win, what’s your plan for the prize money?
DZ: Obviously, some [of it] I’ll put away for my children. … I’m going to take some of the money from the last winnings and donate it to [one of my employees for her cancer treatment] … . I’d like to probably still donate [more], because it’s going to cost a lot more than the last show to help her … . So, I’d just try to help her any way I can with some of the money as well. … I hired her; she’s been with me since day one, and my restaurant’s going on six years old. You know, we have to give back to others. I mean, I’m thankful for what I have, and that’s one thing my grandma always told me: You have to always appreciate what you have, not what you don’t have, and you have to give to others, too, but people who really need it, and she needs it.
You mentioned your grandma, that she used to like watching Bobby Flay on Iron Chef and she wanted you to go up against him, but you missed that opportunity, so is this like another redemption for you?
DZ: Yeah, definitely. My grandma would probably be like, “I told you you’re going to get on there one day; I told you.” But, I mean, she’s not here; this is four years [since] she’s passed away, and my grandma raised me, so I was a grandma’s boy. We went fishing every Friday, and I love to fish, and I haven’t fished since she passed. Who I am as a man today, it’s because of my grandma, because I didn’t meet my father until I was 25, so everything that you know me as being a man is from my grandmother. So, she’s super-important to me.
Tune in for Part 2 of the Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay tournament next Thursday at 9|8c.